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National Cowboy Poetry Gathering turns 25, and it hasn't forgotten its founders.
Photo: Matthew B. Brown (Randy Rieman performs poetry)
“This is a full week of entertainment—meeting wonderful people while living and breathing the cowboy culture with its great work ethic,” says Carole Davis, who has attended more than half of the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gatherings. The Gathering’s 25th anniversary will be January 24 to 31 in Elko. Past gatherings have focused on cowboy cultures from here and abroad, but this one will be a homecoming. “Artists, audiences, volunteers, and sponsors from past Gatherings have been invited to return to Elko,” executive director Charlie Seemann says.
Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, is expected to reflect on her childhood on a ranch in Arizona in her keynote address. In her book written with her brother, Alan, Lazy B: Growing up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest, she recalls those days. “It was no country for sissies, then or now,” O’Connor says.
At least 15 of the 53 poets and 24 musicians performing this year were at the first Gathering, including Waddie Mitchell, one of the Gathering’s founders; Baxter Black, a nationally syndicated columnist and National Public Radio commentator; and Canadian singer and songwriter Ian Tyson. Other performers include Riders in the Sky western quartet and western band Asleep at the Wheel, who will present two live musical performances as a tribute to Bob Wills.
Besides poets and musicians, other attractions will be workshops on Western cooking and crafts, ranch tours, how to write poems and family histories, and Western film screenings.
The Gathering began in the 1970s when Western folklorists, concerned about the loss of cowboy culture, met to find a solution. That solution was a get-together. Elko was chosen as a “good cowboy center for more than a century, with cheap wintertime rates, excellent public facilities, and where cowboy poetry was already known,” recalls founding director Hal Cannon. He and local poet Mitchell set up chairs in 1985 for a one-time event. “We had about 60 chairs in place when Waddie said, ‘Pard, let’s not go overboard. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves.’ Soon the room filled to capacity and by the end of the weekend, between 500 and 1,000 people had come.”
As the Gathering’s popularity grew, many others were held around the country. In 2000, the Elko event was renamed the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering by an Act of Congress.
Red Steagall, Poet Laureate of Texas and a member of the Western Folklife Center’s National Advisory Council, has performed at many Gatherings. “I like what they do here and I’m glad to support them,” he says. Paul Zarzyski, a popular poet from Montana, enjoys the event. “It’s the people. It’s just like rodeo. I can’t rodeo anymore, but the experience is the same. Great people—the performers, those behind the scenes, the whole remuda,” he says. Perhaps Mitchell, now a nationally known performer, sums it up best. “It’s just like a family reunion, except everyone likes one another.”
Western Folklife Center
501 Railroad St., Elko